24 January 2017

2016: From Fact to Fiction

A list of my favourite films from 2016 – in which real life is a recurring theme.

The year-end list is a bit of a hallowed tradition among critics, and having failed to fulfil that expectation at the end of 2016, I want to do so before the first month of 2017 comes to an end. Let me begin with the necessary caveat: this is not a list that pretends to anything like exhaustiveness. Like all such lists, it is a selection drawn from the films I happened to watch in 2016 and, like me, it is reasonably eclectic and yet not quite as wide-ranging in sweep as it could be.

In terms of language, for instance, this is a list that tilts very much in the direction of Hindi cinema – but I have included some films in other Indian languages that enjoyed the privilege of what we insist on calling a 'national' release: A few shows each in a couple of multiplexes in the bigger Indian cities, accessible to those of us who can pay and are willing to read English subtitles.

This is the first part of a two-part column, and the five films I list below, while starkly different from each other in tenor and sensibility, are united by the fact that they are all fictional engagements with people and events that we know to have existed in the real world.

Visaranai (The Interrogation) was India's entry to the 2017 Oscars. (It is no longer in the race.)
1. Visaranai (The Interrogation): Vetrimaaran's harrowing film is based on a real-life memoir, offering a blow-by-blow account of the torture a group of young Tamil-speaking migrants suffer at the hands of a posse of Telugu policemen who pick them up under pressure to 'crack' a high-profile case. Tautly crafted and stuffed with affecting performances, Visaranai's devastating home truths about how deep the rot runs in police 'investigation' have managed to travel far and wide while retaining an unapologetic dramatic excess that I can only characterise as Indian.

2. Aligarh: Hansal Mehta's film – also drawing on something that was 'covered' in the newspapers – is a portrait of a deeply lonely man: The casualty of a society quick to stigmatise anyone not exactly like themselves, and a media that does not hesitate to invade anyone's privacy. This is a media that speaks less and less for the individual, and more and more for the mob it is helping to create. Mehta and his screenwriter Apurva Asrani have justly been applauded for placing the right to sexual choice on an abstract moral map – but what makes the film so effective is its ability to make potentially unsympathetic audiences perceive Dr Siras in his particular individuality.

3. NeerjaYet another instance of a fiction feature informed by factual events, Ram Madhvani's film about the Indian flight attendant who was killed trying to save passengers during a 1986 hijack gave us another unlikely heroine, and an unexpectedly convincing performance from Sonam Kapur. Like Deepu Sebastian Edmond, on whom Rajkummar Rao's journalist character is based in Aligarh, all Neerja Bhanot was trying to do was to do her job well. Making heroism flow from something as ordinary as that – following the rules rather than trying to think out of the box – helped recuperate for us the long-lost Hindi cinema ideal of ‘farz’.

4. Raman Raghav 2.0
Marking the return of Anurag Kashyap to top form, this film is less about humanising heroes and more about humanising villains. It's scary stuff, with Kashyap and Vasan Bala's present-day reimagining of a‘60s serial killer given chillingly ordinary form by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Siddiqui's outstanding performance is hard to rival, but Vicky Kaushal's cokeaddled Raghavan does add an additional layer to the sinister vision of police impunity laid out in Visaranai.


5. Dangal: A wonderfully enjoyable imagining of the childhood and youth of the Phogat sisters: real-life wrestling champions Gita and Babita, who were dragged kicking and screaming into the sporting life by their father Mahavir (played by Aamir Khan). Nitish Tiwari's film offers us new age heroines: Two winsome young women we can cheer for as they kick and punch their way into hard-won stardom, in a male-dominated sport in the male-dominated state of Haryana. And it does so in the finest traditions of old-school Hindi cinema: A song-studded filmic childhood, complete with the heroines 'growing up' before our eyes in a single heart-thumping instant of achievement; plenty of comic relief; a villainous coach whose excessiveness is made believable by the always-marvellous Marathi actor Girish Kulkarni.

(To be continued next week)

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 22 Jan 2017.

22 January 2017

Picture This: Dreaming Delhi, Documenting Delhi

My BLInk column:

A set of striking student films demonstrate that ten sharply-focused minutes can open our eyes to worlds through which we sleepwalk every day.

A child sits in a sandpit, scooping up sand with a small sieve. Some sand escapes each time, but a little gets to its destination — the pot is now almost full. Someone asks what he’s doing, and the little boy’s answer comes unhesitatingly: making tea. “And what have you put in it?” “Sooji!” (semolina) comes the reply.
The scene — from Window’s Hole, one of five 10-minute films made by students of the Creative Documentary course at New Delhi’s Sri Aurobindo Institute of Arts and Communication (SACAC) — can be watched as a gently comic take on how children’s minds work. But it is also wonderfully cinematic.
The unasked question of why the sand is tea is answered by the presence of the chhalni. (If there is a strainer, it must be tea.) And the other unasked question — why semolina in chai? — is answered by the camera coming to rest on the granular texture of the sand. Of course, sand is sooji!
The five films screened at SACAC on Dec 19 comprise of what the 18-month documentary filmmaking course calls the students’ ‘Location Project’. Students divide into pairs, exploring a space of their choosing on film. Aviva Dharmaraj and Gagan Singh, who made Window’s Hole, chose to film within SACAC’s own campus. The sights and sounds of the Auro Navakriti playschool become a way of capturing the world as a child might experience it. Some of this is about scale: I loved the last shot in which a serious-eyed little boy carefully places his toy car next to the rabbit hatch — did he imagine it as a getaway vehicle for the rabbits, should they choose to stage a glorious escape?
The others go further afield, but being student films made on presumably non-existent budgets, they don’t stray far. Anuradha Bansal and Aparna Bansal’s is perhaps the most predictable in its choice of terrain — the Indian Coffee House. Hovering above the hubbub of Connaught Place, the somewhat fusty old cafe on the terrace of Mohan Singh Place is where generations of Delhi’s men (rarely women) have measured out their lives in coffee spoons. The filmmakers seem, however, a little awestruck by the history of the institution — for instance, its closure (in its previous location) by Indira Gandhi’s government under Emergency occupies official centrestage in the film, but there is little cinematic content to back up the claim that it affected people deeply. Perhaps we are simply too distant from the events in question to summon up the memories. Even a Coffee House regular’s mention of our current Prime Minister and his undemocratic tendencies does not produce the emotional bridge the film strives for.
Akanksha Gupta and Vasuki Chandak, meanwhile, focus their attentions on an unobtrusive little gate that divides two Delhi localities: the upper middle-class Navjivan Vihar and the less posh STC colony. The filmmakers display a wonderful eye for form, and the power of repetition: the grids of windows in walls, mostly closed, like the blank faces of people gazing out from their balconies. Mapping both the colony’s old-school manual policing — the watchman and his jail-like routine of closing and opening the gate seven-odd times a day — and the new excitement created by a CCTV camera, Looking Through the Fence captures the absurd degree of suspicion that reigns among Delhi’s more monied. But the filmmakers also demonstrate the joyful abandon with which such direness can be circumvented. Two children regularly pass through the bolted so-called chor-darwaza (thief’s door), not looking at all thief-like about it.
The policing of boundaries between spaces is also the subject of my favourite film of the five. The pithy but somehow also poetic Home Ground, by Arunima Tenzin Tara and Sushil, excavates a particular history of Delhi’s present with rare subtlety and precision. Shot in an Idgah-cum-playground that lies between the upper middle-class Saket and the older urban village Hauz Rani, the film draws attention to walls, and how they create the spaces they are meant to demarcate. The walls needed to mark graves (for the ‘empty’ space to be recognized as a kabristan (graveyard) by the powers-that-be) are juxtaposed with the walls that have carved ostensibly more useful space — a sports complex, a multiplex cinema, a superspeciality hospital, a school — out of what was once a forest rich in birdsong. Of course, none of the users of these new spaces intersect with the users of the erstwhile jungle.
The disappearance of Hauz Rani’s mango trees forms a delicate link with the final film here, Waiting for the Flood, which begins with a line from a poem by WS Merwin: “When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains.” Abhinava Bhattacharya and Mallika Visvanathan have crafted a well-researched piece of work that is also stunning in its imagery. From the watery depths of Qutb Sahib ki Baoli, where Farooq, Zakir and Mushtaq sit waiting for the fish, to the monkey that sits beside a pile of malba (rubble), the film’s visuals contain an appeal to find beauty amid ugliness. The pink bougainvillea flowers reflected in the now sewage-filled nallah, the sunlight glinting off oil-swirled water, and a single red dragonfly examining its options — all allow dreams to bubble up from the city’s darkness. These young filmmakers may still be finding their feet, but their heads are in the clouds for a reason. This is documentary striving to dream other dreams.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 13 Jan 2017.

Growing up is hard to do

My Mirror column:

Shlok Sharma's Haraamkhor makes you think about sex and seduction – and about the meaning of adulthood.

In November 2015, I wrote a column called 'The Age of Discovery' about two wonderful films, one British and the other American, in which teenage girls embark on relationships with much older men. I was struck then by the fact that Lone Scherfig's An Education (2009) and Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) were both directed by women, and based on real-life accounts. Scherfig drew on Lynn Barber's much-feted memoir, while Heller adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's autobiographical graphic novel.

These youthful female protagonists were remarkable because they were frank sexual beings: their desires launching them on journeys that were joyful and excited, confused and sad in equal measure. I had written of my desire to see Hindi cinema create such a character: “What would be truly remarkable would be to see the world through the eyes of a young girl (and not in the thoroughly exploitative manner of Ram Gopal Varma's Nishabd).”

Shlok Sharma's marvellously assured debut Haraamkhor has fulfilled that wish of mine. Actress Shweta Tripathi, all sweetness and light as the lovely Shalu in Masaan, transforms herself into something much less sunny here. A 15-year-old schoolgirl in a dusty North Indian kasba, Tripathi's Sandhya is a tightly clenched bundle of contradictions, masking childish neediness with prickly displays of self-assurance.

The generalised loneliness of adolescence is deepened here by the absence of a mother (interestingly, Minnie in The Diary had an absent father). Here, Sandhya's father, a police officer who spends a lot of time away from home, guards secrets of his own – he is not forbidding, but he's not exactly a pillar of emotional support.

Rather than boring into his characters' minds to uncover every single thing that motivates them, Sharma chooses a glancing, sideways approach (the one time a character – Nilu Aunty 
– explains her motivations, the film falters). So Sandhya's immense vulnerability is not really apparent to us, or perhaps even to herself – until she acts. And even then it is not as if the objective facts (of her motherlessness, or her newness in town, or her father's distance) are marshalled to explain her attraction to her tuition teacher, a man who seems not particularly scintillating and often borderline sleazy.

This refusal to explain everything is what makes the film so rich and strange, because, of course, this is how things are in life. We may pretend that everything that happens is straightforward and explicable, but much of the time we have only the faintest idea why the people around us are doing what they're doing. Often that applies to our own behaviour as well.

This state of bafflement is amplified when you're young; the questions in your head are barely articulable. So the teenaged Sandhya's fascination with Shyam, like Minnie's with the 35-year-old Monroe, is at least partly a fascination with sex itself. The rapt gaze Sandhya turns upon Shyam making love to his wife is the radical moment of recognition, where both suddenly see each other as sexual beings. 

The naive child protagonist has been an evocative route into sex and romance, from Leo in LP Hartley's 1953 classic The Go-Between to the child who takes messages between adult lovers in Paresh Kamdar's dreamlike 2008 film Khargosh. But Haraamkhor does something exceptional: it fills the milieu round its central pair with little boys in whom that naivete is mixed in with the ribald humour that apparently stands in for sexuality in the Indian little boy psyche (some Indian men, sadly, never seem to discover another sexual register).

Sharma's non-judgemental approach seems especially important in the case of a character like Shyam, who could so easily have been slotted as pure evil -- the seducing villain, the duplicitous married man, the adult who preys on one someone who is not. Because, of course, he is these things: a person exploiting the power of adulthood. But Haraamkhor insists on showing us his weaknesses, too: his childlike excitement at driving a Luna, his fear of Sandhya's policeman father combined with his unquestioning admiration of his social status, his vacillation in the face of choices he knows to be mistaken.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui's performance alternately elicits laughter and disdain (it is a two-step dance he has done before, for example as the convict Liak in Badlapur). It is a marvellous rendition of masculinity as the constantly fluctuating thing it has to be: boosted by admiration, tempted by lust, cowering in the face of power, lashing out in helpless anger when faced with the possibility of a public shaming -- and sometimes stepping back from selfish instrumentalism to some inner reserve of tenderness. Perhaps in truth the malaise runs wider than masculinity – adulthood, as some wise internet writer recently said, is itself a constant performance, in which we are found wanting more often than we would like.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 Jan 2017.

16 January 2017

Women on the verge

What might we learn from Hindi films directed by women filmmakers in the year gone by?

Anu Menon (dir: Waiting); Leena Yadav (dir: Parched); Gauri Shinde (dir: Dear Zindagi)

2016 might just have been the year of the woman director in Bollywood. Don't get me wrong: the proportion of women directing films is still microscopic — out of 225 Hindi films released in 2016, only nine were directed by women, while one (Sanam Teri Kasam) had a woman (Radhika Rao) co-directing with a man (Vinay Sapru). And that tiny number isn't particularly different from what it was in 2015. (Two of the few established female directors in Bollywood — Zoya Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar — had releases in 2015: Dil Dhadakne Do and Talwar respectively. As did another woman making her second feature, Madhureeta Anand, who followed up her 2009 feature debut Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye with 2015's Kajarya, on the necessarily worthy subject of female foeticide.)

But for some reason, the work of women stood out for me this year. Perhaps it was the fact that the women who came out with films this year aren’t names to reckon with, and unlike Zoya Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar, don't have filmi fathers. Perhaps it was the fact that many of these women were making their feature film debuts, making it feel like a new crop of filmmakers. Or perhaps it was simply that they managed to represent a range of cinematic styles and interests while also providing a perspective that seemed distinctively female.

The procession began with fanfare in January. Shefali Bhushan's debut Jugni had a female protagonist grappling with creative ambition and social difference. Sudha Kongara's sports-themed romance Saala Khadoos — while being an overcooked Hindi version of Kongara's simultaneously released Tamil film Irudhi Suttru — gave us a charming heroine who was convincingly brattish and even more convincing in her romantic coming of age (I would, for instance, choose Ritika Singh's hot-headed, kooky Madhi over Kajol's precious Anjali from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai any day).

February offered more predictable fare from women directors: Sanam Re directed by Divya Khosla Kumar (wife of T-Series music moghul Bhushan Kumar), and Sanam Teri Kasam. Then came Jasmine Moses D'Souza's One Night Stand, starring Sunny Leone, which I missed then but now can't wait to watch, especially after reading an interview where D'Souza asks all-important questions about sexual double standards in our society: “For a man, we justify by saying that he has his needs. Can't a woman have her needs? Can't she get carried away? And if she does, does it make her bad?

In May, came Anu Menon's Waiting, a quietly atmospheric drama that pitches an older man (Naseeruddin Shah) against a younger woman (Kalki Koechlin). Menon, who debuted with 2012's London Paris New York, here, crafts an affecting intergenerational relationship whose instantaneous intensity is made entirely believable by both protagonists' partners battling death in a Kochi hospital. In different ways, Jugni, Saala Khadoos and Waiting all challenge the boundaries of who women can fall in love with.

Leena Yadav's Parched is a much more self-consciously feminist take on women's lives and their sexual needs — its occasional missteps in the seductive tourist-y direction somewhat compensated for by a rare, affectionate depiction of female friendship, its frank bawdiness a rare treat on the Indian screen.

I was apparently among the rare people to enjoy Baar Baar Dekho, directed by first-timer Nitya Mehra. Her use of a comic time-travel premise to portray a checked-out husband seemed a great way to communicate with audiences who may not have taken too well to a flat-out melodramatic message about what long-term relationships mean: I met an Uber driver watching the film on loop and pondering the too-little-time he spent with his wife.

Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, one of the year's finest films, is not centred on women, but both Amruta Subhash's housewife who finds herself liberated from a domineering husband and Tannishtha Chatterjee's quiet girl blossoming in a secret romance are superb characters. Although not the main focus, Subhash's relationship with her mother-in-law and Tannishtha's with her mother portray complexity with rare economy.

In Saala Khadoos, two sisters battle each other for a man's attention, which seems to stand for the world's praise, while in Parched, women strive to keep their connection alive despite being given sharply different statuses by a male world. In Waiting, Koechlin's Tara angrily unpicks a female friend's pious platitudes. Meanwhile two very different films — Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's Nil Battey Sannata and Gauri Shinde's Dear Zindagi — dealt movingly with fraught mother-daughter relationships. The strength and tension of relationships between women might well be the theme that women directors brought to the table last year.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Jan 8, 2017

5 January 2017

Men on the Ropes

My Mirror column

Dangal grapples with wrestling’s tradition of masculinity — and Indianness.

On the simplest level, the tale told in Dangal is an inspiring, heartfelt one — of women entering an arena traditionally reserved for men and not just surviving but making a mark. The two young women whose journey the film tracks — Gita Phogat and Babita Kumari — are a beacon not just of bodily discipline, but of the struggle against mindsets. Their lives are a window through which we catch a glimpse of a possible new world: the world as it might look if girls in North India were treated the same as boys.

At another level, though, Nitesh Tiwari’s film (not unlike Ali Abbas Zafar’s Salman-Khan-starrer Sultan earlier this year) is a carefully calibrated engagement with masculinity, femininity and nationalism (not necessarily in that order). And it is no coincidence, it seems to me, that the chosen site of that engagement is wrestling.

With links to royal patronage and feudal elite sponsorship, writes the anthropologist Joseph S. Alter in his study of wrestling culture in North India, wrestling has a long history in this part of the world. And although wrestlers earn prize money at the regional, state and national levels, it is not the professional sporting academies but the informal local akharas — public institutions often run on gifts, neighbourhood chanda collection and charitable donations — that feed the widespread popular interest in wrestling.

Both the wrestling films I am speaking of have taken on board the sport’s in-between, possibly ambivalent status —as something local and deep-rooted and organically Indian, but also tragically undervalued by the very national custodians of sport who should be propping it up. In both the fictional (Sultan) and non-fictional (Dangal) narrative, of course, the assumption is that this indigenous sporting tradition will finally acquire value by being showcased on the world stage.

Onwards to masculinity. “Wrestling in India (pahalwani) is a sport engaged in exclusively by men who are extremely concerned with the nature of their masculinity,” writes Alter. Any woman who has ever tried to enter an akhara (a gymnasium in which pahalwans practice) knows that it is well-nigh impossible to be allowed in, even just to watch. Just last July, at a small but reputed akhara in Shivajinagar in Bangalore, I was curtly told to stand outside, while my male companion — as much of an outsider there as I was — traipsed happily in. (Dangal’s titling images of real-life young wrestlers — large, serious-faced boys in langots — are thus a rare equal-opportunity sight.)

The point, however, is that keeping women out of the akhara is not just a regular form of gender injustice; it is entwined with traditional beliefs that have shaped wrestling in the subcontinent. This is a culture of masculine excess, simultaneously bombastic and threatened, driven by an obsession with celibacy, disciplined self-control and the retention of semen — all only achievable by steering clear of the poisonous temptations represented by women. As one old pahalwan says to Aamir Khan’s Mahavir Singh Phogat when he seeks training at the akhara for his daughters, “Is umar mein paap karvaayega ke?” 
The ideological links with certain traditions of Hindu asceticism should be clear. 

Less obvious — but more fascinating — is how wrestling is seen by its practitioners as a form of self-perfection in the service of the nation, and the way that self-construction might connect to Gandhi’s pushing of the celibacy ideal as part of nation-building.

So it should not surprise us that in what is arguably the most bombastically hypernationalist year independent India has yet seen, the Hindi film industry has given us not one but two films about wrestling. What’s interesting is that both Sultan and Dangal chose to engage with the figure of the female wrestler, rather a rare species in real life. In both, the women bear the burden of their father’s ambitions — and they come out shining, so long as they keep their sexuality at bay.

In Sultan, the educated daughter (Anushka Sharma) returns to the village to represent her father’s akhara and increase its status; she does very well in her appointed task, until love, marriage, and an ill-timed pregnancy comes in the way of her winning a world title. In Dangal’s retelling of the Phogat sisters’ lives, it is their ex-wrestler father Mahavir who makes the decision for them. Among the most emotive scenes in the film’s first half is the way the girls are coaxed and coached out of girly-ness. In what feels like a radical role reversal for a man who is otherwise a standard-issue rural Haryanvi father with traditional expectations for women, Mahavir practically forces his daughters to wear shirts and shorts, wakes them up at five every morning for a gruelling fitness routine, and in a gutwrenching scene, has the barber chop off their hair.

The plot of Dangal’s second half, in fact, turns on Gita’s becoming distracted from her appointed purpose in the world — wrestling — by relaxing into the ordinary femininity that was wrested from her as a child. Growing her hair, watching romantic Bollywood films, and generally acquiring a consciousness of herself as a woman is apparently enough to make her lose her edge as a wrestler.

Perhaps it would be incorrect to call Dangal a defense of celibacy, but certainly its deep suspicion of femininity owes something to wrestling’s particular history of (un)sexuality.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Dec 2016.